Tate: Rankings the least of Beckman's concerns
Illini football coach Tim Beckman ascribes to the philosophy of his boss, Mike Thomas: The glass is always half full.
So if Athlon Magazine rates the UI's freshman football class last in the Big Ten, the answer will be: "Let's wait three or four years and see how they play."
That's OK for now. Freshmen only infrequently turn losses into victories. Redshirting would usually better serve the athlete and the school. But the Athlon evaluation is a reminder of the task facing Beckman.
Repeating, this concern is not immediate, but about 2013 and beyond.
As he prepares for Western Michigan on Sept. 1, Beckman may have enough experienced talent to piece together an effective lineup. The defense is set, even though one of seven senior starters, Justin Staples, has been suspended for the opener. Special teams can't help but be improved, particularly if freshman place-kicker Ryan Frain lives up to his Indianapolis press clippings (he booted a 54-yarder in the Indiana all-star game).
But offense is another story. Beckman said center Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton will take snaps at tackle in Rantoul. This is a clear indication that Luke Butkus' quintet is unsettled. And the receiving corps is both thin and unproven.
Let's talk receivers. Spread offenses depend on them. Departed assistant Paul Petrino said when they're producing they can inspire a team like nobody else.
Illinois has had some inspiring pass catchers since 2000. Brandon Lloyd spearheaded the UI's best-ever quartet. Arrelious Benn comes to mind. A.J. Jenkins caught 146 passes the last two years.
Jenkins is one of six 2011 receivers no longer here. Also gone from the 2011 depth chart are Fred Sykes, Brandon Clear, Anthony Williams, Jordan Frysinger and Jake Kumerow. Six departed; one newcomer on scholarship: J.J. Robertson.
Now, Beckman isn't exactly starting from scratch. But consider: Ryan Lankford started five games out of 13, yet he caught just 12 balls. Spencer Harris had 24 receptions, but none over 15 yards. Darius Millines had eight starts but speared just 19. These are not imposing numbers, not for a team that threw 362 passes. Think about it.
So Beckman is shorthanded, and it isn't clear whether Robertson will be ready to help. Innovation is the only answer. You may see versatile tight end Jon Davis in the slot. You may see running back Josh Ferguson in motion. You'll definitely see cornerback Terry Hawthorne moving over for 10 plays or more ... and perhaps Justin Green as well.
This patchwork approach is demanded, and when you consider the talent of Davis and Hawthorne, it might work. But it's not an ideal situation.
Will Nate be great?
Junior Nathan Scheelhaase will join Pocic and Michael Buchanan at Big Ten meetings this week amid myriad questions. How good will the QB be?
Best guess: Scheelhaase will be as good as his blockers, the aforementioned receivers and running backs allow him to be.
He attained star level from a point midway in his freshman season until midway last season. The Illini went 10-3 during that span before seeing their seven-game win streak halted by Ohio State, 17-7, last October. You might recall that Illinois finished 4-3 in 2010 with four runaway triumphs and three narrow losses: 67-65 at Michigan in 3OT, 38-34 to Minnesota and 25-23 at Fresno State. That's a stretch of 13 games in which Scheelhaase, under the direction of Petrino, was more than adequate.
What we saw late last season was offensive line slippage, ball carriers who weren't up to the Leshoure-Mendenhall-Thomas level, and a receiving corps that couldn't produce when secondaries concentrated on Jenkins. And Scheelhaase earned his share of the blame during the six-game losing streak, throwing for just 63 yards at Penn State, 99 vs. Wisconsin and then just 15 at Minnesota as he was benched in favor of Reilly O'Toole.
This is a new beginning. Beckman has settled on Scheelhaase, but the coach inherits the same offensive problems that spoiled last year's great start.
Rank and file
Whenever Illini football problems are discussed, we return to age-old recruiting disparities. LSU and USC won't agree, but there is something unhealthy about the separation between the nation's "haves" and "have-nots."
The annual process resembles the old sandlot pickup game in which the biggest bully gets the first nine picks. It doesn't mean the underdogs can't win, but it's surely an uphill battle.
Maintaining his half-full philosophy, Beckman seems pleased with the UI's early results for 2013. The Illini have 15 commitments and are ranked No. 23 by Rivals. But in this uncompleted Top 50 list, there is the customary break between the top dozen — the "elites" — and everybody else.
Rivals reports that USC has 16 commits that include three five-star prospects and 13 with four-star rankings. Michigan has 14 four-stars out of 22 commits. By comparison, Illinois has two in the four-star category and the other 13 rated below. Nine powerhouse schools have already attracted 10 or more athletes with at least four-star ratings. After that, the numbers drop off dramatically.
It is here that the customary counterpoint can be made: These rankings are educated guesses. Jonathan Brown was a three-star recruit out of Memphis, and today the Illini junior may be the best linebacker in the Big Ten. Players change and develop overnight. This is inevitable. But depth is ultra-important in football, and there is a reason why the top teams remain in contention year after year. The teams with the most highly-ranked players usually win.
State of disrepair
In this state, various evaluators indicate the nine most highly-ranked upcoming seniors are Joliet Catholic running back Ty Isaac (USC), Lemont tackle Ethan Pocic (LSU), Crete-Monee receiver Laquon Treadwell (undecided), Wheaton St. Francis tackle Kyle Bosch (Michigan), Lincoln-Way West tackle Colin McGovern (Notre Dame), Peoria Manual tackle Logan Tuley-Tillman (Michigan), Bolingbrook quarterback Aaron Bailey (Illinois), Naperville North lineman Cole Goebel (Iowa) and Maine South quarterback Matt Alviti (Northwestern).
For the second straight year, the Illini have an early commitment from Chicagoland's top quarterback (Bailey) but have lost out on all the state's four-star prospects such as Palatine tackle Brian Bobek (Ohio State), Glenbard West lineman Jordan Walsh (Iowa) and Simeon lineman Chris Bryant (Michigan).
Beckman is facing the same challenge in northern Illinois that John Groce is bucking in basketball. The in-state university can't seem to take advantage of its geographical fit. Moving ahead to the class arriving on campus, we expect to see 19 rookies from the Zook-Beckman efforts this month — no four-stars among them — and just four attended high school in Illinois. FOUR! What does that tell you?
Looking back to 2010, there were no four-stars in that UI class of upcoming sophomores and, aside from O'Toole, the most promising as freshmen a year ago were Louisville's Davis, linebackers Ralph Cooper of South Carolina and Henry Dickinson of Memphis, guard Ted Karras of Indianapolis and running back Donovonn Young of Texas.
What makes Beckman's job so difficult is that the northern Illinois playground is not what it once was, and the Illini aren't even getting first dibs on what's left.
The Illini are working on a third straight recruiting class without major input from the home state. It is hard to imagine Beckman, for all his optimism and energy, succeeding in the long run if that doesn't change.
— The trademark at the center of the new Memorial Stadium with be a Block I backgrounded by a dim outline of the state. The work will hopefully be completed so as not to conflict with Beckman's practices before the opener. The indoor football facility is also receiving new artificial turf. At the same time, work has begun on St. Mary's Road with the intention of having a new surface completed before the Illini opener.
— Thomas says the Block I will be a part of the new branding logo being planned by the university and Nike. It is an 18-month project. Illini uniforms won't be changed this season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.